Over the past five years, Ukrainian journalism has suffered a great deal: from paramilitary conditions of work to a series of murders of journalists. Since independence, the country, unfortunately, could not muster the independent media and freedom of speech. All along, Ukraine has been like on a seesaw. The year 2013 was marked by the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity, which among other things made its special adjustments to the work of journalists and created quite unusual working conditions: they worked under the gun of snipers, hid behind the burning barricades of the Maidan and hid from the militants’ attacks in Donbas. A new challenge appeared in peacetime, this time, Ukrainian media were hemmed in by a new democratic government.
From a "free" to a "partly free" country
In 2014, Freedom House reiterated serious setbacks to democratic rights in Ukraine and called it a country with non-free media, although since 2010 the country has been on the “partly free” list, and before that, it had been on the “free” list (for 4 years).
The deterioration of the situation in Ukraine during this period was also noted by Reporters Without Borders. According to their Press Freedom Index, the country starts losing its positions. Subsequently, we ranked 116th in 2012 and lost 10 positions in 2013, raking 126th between Algeria and Honduras. A year later, Ukraine regressed by one more position and held the 127th place, and in 2015 it ranked 129th out of the 180 countries reviewed.
Five years have passed since the Revolution of Dignity. Ukraine has got rid of, as we used to say, its authoritarian president, however, it brought no special changes to the freedom of speech ratings. Ukraine is in the second hundred of the Reporters Without Borders rating, and the level of the country’s Internet freedom has been falling for seven years already – our previously “free” country has become “partially free.”
Reporters Without Borders
"The conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has driven authorities to censor online content perceived to undermine Ukraine’s standing in the conflict. Many Russian online platforms and websites are blocked as the Ukrainian government increasingly proposes legislation that would codify its blocking power into law… Authorities have cracked down on social media users in attempts to curb anti-Ukrainian rhetoric online, imprisoning users for so-called “separatist” or “extremist” expression… Internet Service Providers were ordered to block them (Social media platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki are blocked, as well as Yandex, the Russian-speaking world's most popular search engine, and mail.ru, a popular email service, - ed) as part of a national security decree issued by President Petro Poroshenko in May 2017, which imposed sanctions against Russian companies. President Poroshenko claimed the measures were necessary to protect against cyberattacks and data collection by Russian authorities," as stated in the Freedom House “Freedom on the Net 2018” report.
Ukrainian experts associate it with the constant aspirations of the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies "to control and ban" freedom of the Net, violating Ukrainian legislation, as well as with extrajudicial blocking of Ukraine’s Internet resources with the relevant decisions of various authorities, Freedom House Ukraine website says.
Freedom House Ukraine
We should understand that in contrast to the traditional media, the Internet is still relatively free space. The only positive change noted by the international organizations in the state’s press policy is the adoption of a law on disclosure of information about the ultimate owners of the media outlet. But at the same time, Reporters Without Borders noted that it is “is needed to loosen the oligarchs’ tight grip on the media and to encourage editorial independence.”
" The information war with Russia has negative effects that include banning Russian media and Russian social networks and the blacklisting of foreign journalists. Foot-dragging in the fight against corruption has affected investigative reporting. Physical attacks on the media, including journalist Pavel Sheremet’s murder in 2016, continue to go unpunished and concern is growing in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The separatist-controlled areas in the east are still no-go areas without critical journalists or foreign observers," as said in their latest report.
“The Ukrainian government continued restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of information, and media freedom, seeking to justify them by citing the need to counter Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine and anti-Ukraine propaganda. According to the Institute for Mass Information, a media freedom watchdog, as of October, 201 press freedom violations took place in 23 regions,” Human Rights Watch wrote in its latest report on freedom of expression and media in Ukraine.
According to the international organization, these ranged from threats and intimidation to restrict journalists’ access to information. In May, an appellate court upheld a regional court’s decision to suspend the retrial of Ruslan Kotsaba, a journalist who had been prosecuted on treason charges for calling for boycotting conscription. The court concluded that the prosecution failed to properly formulate the indictment.
In May, the SBU deported two journalists from the main Russian-state television channel, Channel 1, alleging that they had planned to spread disinformation about Ukraine. Also in May, the Ukraine editor of the Russian state wire service, RIA Novosti, in Ukraine, Kirill Vyshinsky, was arrested on treason charges for his alleged participation in “propaganda campaigns” to legitimize Russia’s actions in Crimea. Security services raided the outlet’s office in Kyiv.
Violence against journalists
"There is only one thing that threatens freedom of speech more than harassment, assault, and murder of media workers: this is when the authorities allow harassment, assault, and murder." These words of former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti probably most accurately describe the situation with attacks against journalists in the world. After the assassination of Georgiy Gongadze (Georgian politician and Ukrainian journalist and film director who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000, - ed.), the issue of security of media workers became very acute. But over time, one cannot say that this issue has been solved in Ukraine. If earlier they were targeted because of their investigations, then at the beginning of 2014 new risks appeared: representatives of the Ukrainian and foreign media were among the first to suffer during Euromaidan, and later became the victims of Donbas war. At the end of 2013, Ukraine became one of the worst places in Europe for media representatives. Pavlo Sheremet and Oles Buzyna (Ukrainian journalists, - ed.) were killed in Kyiv in peacetime.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) raises the alarm as well. The committee stated that they documented numerous violations of press freedom in Ukraine, including attacks, detentions, and kidnappings of journalists, as well as the blocking of radio and television channels.
Along with the prosecution of journalists, the problem of bringing those responsible to justice remains acute, because most of the investigations into attacks or murders have not been completed. Killers of Sheremet are still not found.
Human Rights Watch underlines it, citing the death of anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk in November 2018, after the criminal doused her with acid.
Political pressure on the media
Another significant trend in the work of the media in Ukraine is the political pressure against a few independent outlets and television channels. Especially it has intensified against the background of the upcoming elections. At the end of the last year, right-wing political forces in the Verkhovna Rada initiated an appeal to the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) to consider the possibility of imposing sanctions against 112 Ukraine and NewsOne TV channels. The argument of this appeal was doubtful, and it appealed to the fact that these media "cover the events in a wrong way," thus being a "fifth column." However, these arguments, more common for some African or Asian dictatorship, suited the taste of the MPs. Even those MPs, who declared their intention to run for president – Yulia Tymoshenko, Oleg Lyashko, Yuriy Derevyanko, - voted for the document.
MPs asked the National Security Council to impose sanctions against the two media, in fact, asking to stop their broadcasting. The motives of the MPs, who pressed "FOR" button, remain unclear because the media have not violated the legal norms. This was indicated by the head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU), Serhiy Tomilenko, as well as many experts and market participants. In fact, the decision on sanctions was exclusively political.
“Unfortunately, with the approaching of the two election campaigns of 2019 in Ukraine, there are more and more politicians who are trying to use the channel’s editorial policy as an object of attack and a tool for providing cheap political hype. We must regretfully admit that there are systematic attacks from the authorities, which impeded the TV channel renew its broadcasting licenses, now the pressure from radical Verkhovna Rada MPs has been added... "112 Ukraine" TV channel believes that the attempts to stop its activities are part of a larger process and are related to the unsatisfactory situation with respect to freedom of speech in Ukraine. Ukrainian and Western human rights organizations, politicians, government officials, and independent media experts have repeatedly drawn attention to this,” as Yehor Benkendorf, Director General of 112 Ukraine, said in his open letter.
At the same time, petitions addressed to the president with a call to protect freedom of speech in the country have not yet come to his table. The reason is very strange - the register on the president’s administration website cannot count all the signers.
Let us not forget about the case of Strana.UA editor-in-chief Ihor Huzhva, who was forced to leave the country after security officials raided the office of his outlet.
Against the background of this “media clearing,” conducted by the authorities, the trust of the Ukrainians to the media decreases. According to the data of domestic expert centers, the level of distrust of the media exceeds the level of trust. Only a third of citizens do trust the media. This situation is very convenient for the authorities since it devalues exposing materials published by the independent media. After all, it is much easier to manage the intimidated and non-trusting people than well-informed society.